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Royal Romance

The Royal Romance exhibition examined Australia's passionate response to Queen Elizabeth II's first visit in 1954, and whether the nation has fallen out of love since. It was on show at the National Museum of Australia from February to October 2004.

The 1954 Royal Tour of Australia

On 3 February 1954, the royal barge pulled into Farm Cove, Sydney. The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II stepped ashore, becoming the first reigning British monarch to visit Australia. Australians responded passionately to the young Queen, turning out in their millions to catch a brief glimpse of their sovereign.

Queen Elizabeth II meets two jockeys at a racecourse. A crowd is visible in the background.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at Flemington racecourse, 1954. National Archives of Australia A1773, RV1080

For the next two months, until her departure from Fremantle, the Queen's visit provided Australians with a chance to celebrate and demonstrate their loyalty. Almost three-quarters of the Australian population took advantage of the opportunity, seeing the Queen at least once during the visit.

Royal Romance takes a look back on this, the most celebrated of royal tours. Decades later, the passionate response of Australians to the Queen's 1954 visit requires some explanation.

Changing role of the monarchy

The royal tour by the Queen in 2000 attracted considerable interest, but not the mass excitement of her first visit. In 1954, Australians overwhelmingly supported remaining a constitutional monarchy.

By the 1990s, the mood had shifted to the point where becoming a republic was the focus of major public debate. While Australians rejected the 1999 referendum proposal for Australia to become a republic, the proposal revealed a fundamental shift in Australia's attitude to the monarchy.

In developing Royal Romance, the National Museum explored the response of Australians to the Queen, why some people were so infatuated with her 50 years ago and whether we have fallen out of love since. The exhibition also examined the role of the monarchy as the living embodiment of Australia's British heritage. It explored the link between the Crown and the people and the way in which the Queen can become part of our daily lives even though she lives half a world away.

Dressed female doll, HM Queen Elizabeth II in Garter Robes
A badge with a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and a metal pin attached to rear. Text on the badge reads 'SOUVENIR, 1954 ROYAL VISIT'.
Queen Elizabeth II in garter robes doll, about 1990, Cecil Ballard collection, National Museum of Australia; and plastic coated metal souvenir badge, 1954, Petronella Wensing collection, National Museum of Australia

A lasting impression

The Queen's tour of Australia was part of a wider tour of Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, undertaken by the Queen following her coronation in 1953.

A gold brooch containing photos of the Queen during the 1954 Royal Tour.

A small souvenir brooch marking the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Daphne Mabbott collection, National Museum of Australia

The tour was a mixture of politics, fashion and carnival. From the pomp and ceremony of opening federal parliament to the massed displays of celebration, the Queen's visit left a lasting impression on those who took part.

The new Queen was young and glamorous dressed in the latest fashions from London and Europe and seemed to promise new hope for Britain, the Dominions and the colonies.

With television not yet available in Australia, people had to travel, sometimes over hundreds of miles, to see Her Royal Highness. The royal couple visited all state and territory capitals, excluding Darwin, allowing as many people as possible to see her as she travelled to various functions, events and regional centres.

Cecil Ballard holding a photo of Queen Elizabeth II.

Cecil Ballard at home in Robina, Queensland, 2003. Photo: Russell Shakespeare

A collector of royal memorabilia

The Queen also touched people on a personal level. Gold Coast resident Cecil Ballard Junior's interest in the royal family began in the late 1940s, when he started collecting royal memorabilia. Much of Cecil's collection is now part of the National Museum's collection.

In 1954, Cecil visited several locations, including Canberra, to see the Queen go by. 'I would have seen her at least a dozen times. Which I thought was rather good. In fact I took my holidays from where I worked at Mark Foys retail store to make sure that I would not miss any part of it.'

Cecil's collection, which formed an important part of Royal Romance, shows how the monarch, the representative of the Crown's authority, can be personally celebrated in one person's life through everyday objects such as plates, cups, saucers and other memorabilia. 

This relationship between the individual and the Crown lies at the heart of a Royal Romance.

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